10 Days At Ground Zero

The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this...


The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...


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DAY 5. We hit the ground running. This Saturday morning begins as a rainy, dreary day. Mike and I talk about how lucky we had been with the weather overall and wonder how difficult things would be if it were raining every day. We are fortunate indeed, at least in this respect. Mike runs us by the Javits Center, then by the FBI HQ, before heading on down to the site. We arrive just ahead of President Bush. His motorcade slowly ambles by the tent. We are so busy, it is hardly noticed. The entire scene is shut down tight and nobody moves in or out through the checkpoints. It would have been great to hear what he has to say to the troops, but there is just too much to do. We are planning a thorough, top-to-bottom search of a nearby 53-story building across from the site and will be joined by two out-of-state USAR teams with search dogs.

The missing firefighter count rises again, for the fourth straight day. So many personnel responded who were off-duty they could not immediately be accounted for. It is now at a firm head count of 343, almost 100 above the original estimate. You can’t help but let it get to you. I am stunned by the count. It is equivalent to the size of the entire fire department I used to work for. Yet, every time it starts to bother me, Steve is there, picking me up, always being positive. He keeps saying “There’s gotta be a miracle here.” I, in turn, have to believe that there will be.

Mike heads to the NYPD command post and agrees to meet me in the lobby of 1 Liberty Plaza at 11 o’clock. I turn my attention back to the issue of tracking down those missing prints, as the President’s motorcade passes by once again. The scene opens back up and activity returns to its previous pace. Time escapes me, as does the morning. Before I know it, 11 o’clock arrives. I dash over to the building, figuring to be late and instead walk into an empty lobby, not another soul in sight. It is strangely silent. I’ve been in this building so many times. I glance down at my watch. It is 11:10.

Just as I’m beginning to question if the other guys went to the wrong building, Mike strolls in the front entrance, steady talking away on his cell phone. Typically, he’s dealing with a dozen other things at the same time. As he finishes up his conversation, I take out the building’s pre-fire plan and break it down for the team leaders. Within five minutes, the lobby comes alive, filled with members of two police search teams and two USAR teams. We gather around and discuss the operation.

Since this property is one of my clients, I proudly show off the plan. Everyone is briefed on the stairwell configurations, roof and sub-level access issues, locations of hazardous materials, etc. I then hand out a set of floor plans to each team leader, as there is still no power available for the darkened high-rise. I state, with Mike’s concurrence, that the building almost certainly has to have been searched at least once by now, (although it could not be confirmed) and that it would be wise to leave the dogs in the lobby unless they’re needed. This is a tall and very large building (two million square feet) and the poor dogs are already exhausted from numerous searches.

Suddenly, the chief engineer walks in and tells us that he can get the generator going, giving us basic life safety stuff and one elevator. Having broken down the search patterns to “low” and “high” zone teams, eliminating the long climb to the top for the “high” team is greatly appreciated. Mike and I stay in the lobby, as a command post. The search begins. Mike is on the radio to another USAR search effort on the other side of the site, at the World Financial Center.

As he advises them that our pre-plans are in place for their use, I wander over to a clothing store on the west side of the first floor. The place is a mess, several windows missing, countless suits ruined, everything coated with dust from the collapse across the street. After taking care of another call, Mike sticks his head in and advises me that the store was used as a temporary morgue on Sept. 11, one of several in the area. Numerous people who jumped or were killed in the street by falling debris or even bodies from above were brought here. Standing there, alone, I wonder what it must have been like in here that tumultuous day. It had an unearthly feel to it. Dark, dusty and so quiet. It felt like death. I turned and walked out, not wanting to ponder anymore the horror that took place just four days ago in this once-thriving enterprise.